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Apple MacBook Air (11-inch review:

Apple MacBook Air (11-inch

The new Air comes with OS X Lion installed, but users will be grandfathered in to a free upgrade to Mountain Lion 10.8 when it becomes available. Apple's iLife suite of software -- GarageBand, iPhoto, and iMovie -- also comes preinstalled.

The 11-inch Air is still the only MacBook with a 16:9 display (the 13-inch Air and other MacBooks are all 16:10), and uses the same 1,366x768-pixel native resolution as most Windows laptops from 11 to 15 inches. The screen area lacks the edge-to-edge glass over a black bezel found in other MacBooks; instead the screen is surrounded by a thick aluminum bezel. While small, the screen is very bright and crisp, with decent viewing angles. It's great for single-window Web browsing or application work, but multiple windows become a challenge.

The MacBook Air's speakers deliver crisp sound for casual movie, video, and music viewing and listening (or for FaceTime), but in a noisy room you'll want to use headphones. The 720p Webcam is upgraded from last year's MacBook Air Webcam and helps make higher-quality video calls, a welcome touch.

Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, June 2012) Average for category [ultraportable]
Video Thunderbolt VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None None
Sarah Tew/CNET

USB 3.0 is the only new addition to this year's Air: there are two ports, one sits on each side. There is also, just like last year, a single, versatile Thunderbolt port for video-out and high-speed data. The Thunderbolt port can be adapted to HDMI, VGA, DVI, or DisplayPort with adapters. For most people, video-out is all you'll use Thunderbolt for. Thunderbolt hard drives are still expensive, and USB 3.0 hard drives offer far faster-than-USB 2.0 connections for a fraction of the price. The Air supports a single external monitor, plus the built-in screen display.

Upgrade options are limited on the MacBook Air. Our $999 review model only has a 64GB SSD and 4GB of RAM, plus a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 CPU. That SSD fills up very fast -- fresh out of the box, you'll have less than 48GB to work with. The step-up 11-inch Air has a 128GB SSD for $1,099. The flash storage in the MacBook Air isn't the standard off-the-shelf 2.5-inch type; upgrades can be ordered from some Web sites, but it's not as easy to replace. RAM can be upgraded to a max of 8GB for an extra $100. SSD sizes and pricing beyond 128GB are 256GB ($300) and a newly added 512GB ($800).

If you're looking for a little performance boost, the $1,099 11-inch Air can be upgraded to a 2.0GHz Core i7 for an extra $150. The completely tricked-out top-end 11-inch Air comes to a lofty $2,149, just $50 less than an entry-level Retina Display MacBook Pro.

The move to third-gen Intel Core i5 and i7 dual-core processors (code-named Ivy Bridge) means faster overall speeds in the new Airs, but it's not as dramatic as the generation-skipping leap from the 2011 models. Multitasking showed the greatest gains. Side-by-side with the slightly faster 1.8GHz Core i5 processor in the 13-inch Air, the 1.7GHz Core i5 in the 11-inch produced very similar results, and wasn't even far off from the performance of the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. From a pure CPU performance standpoint, the 11-inch Air impresses. Boot time is extremely fast, too: our Air went from off to Wi-Fi on and booted in 13 seconds.

The included Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics are also a step up from the Intel HD 3000 graphics in the previous Air. Our admittedly dated Call of Duty 4 benchmark ran at 29.5 frames per second at 1,366x768 pixels, while it ran at 18.9fps last year. That's an impressive increase, but keep in mind that the 2010 MacBook Air ran the same test at 40.5fps with Nvidia graphics that came included at the time. Newer games may show better results with Intel's integrated graphics. Bottom line: many games will be playable, but graphics settings will need to be adjusted. Still, on an 11-inch machine, that qualifies as a win.

Annual energy consumption cost

In our video-playback battery-drain test, the 2012 11-inch Air ran for 5 hours and 17 minutes, an increase of 41 minutes over last year. The entry-level 2012 13-inch Air, however, ran over 2 hours longer. For such a small computer 5 hours is decent, but if I were buying an Air, I'd choose the 13-inch's longer life and deal with the extra size.

Service and support from Apple is always a dual-edged sword. Apple includes a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support. Upgrading to a full three-year plan under AppleCare will cost an extra $249 and is pretty much a must-buy, considering the proprietary nature of Apple products. Support is also accessible through a well-stocked online knowledge base, video tutorials, and e-mail with customer service, or through in-person visits to Apple's retail store Genius Bars, which, in our experience, have always been fairly frustration-free encounters.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new 2012 11-inch MacBook Air is a little faster and a little more powerful than last year's version. Is that enough to keep it competitive? Considering there's little left competing in the 11-inch space, this little Air remains the ultraportable to beat -- in its $1,099 configuration, if not its $999 one. Be prepared to pay at least an extra $100 to bump the laptop up to an acceptable amount of internal storage.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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